Corporate Torture in Iraq

In 2003, Haider Muhsin Saleh, was living in Dearborn Michigan. A former opponent of Saddam Hussein, he had once been imprisoned and tortured by Saddam’s secret police in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Upon being released he had fled to Sweden and become a Swedish citizen. When the Hussein regime fell, Mr. Saleh heeded the United States’ call for expatriates to return to and rebuild Iraq. He did so with his own funds. Upon his arrival in September of 2003 he was detained and sent to the same Abu Ghraib prison where he had been previously tortured by Saddam Hussein. Instead of getting a chance to rebuild his country he became prisoner #151138 and was subjected to “interrogation.”

Mr. Saleh’s genitals were roped to those of other prisoners; his penis stretched with a rope and beaten with a stick; his own semen poured on his head; his naked body poured cold water upon it in the dead of winter; his naked body shocked with an electric stick; his neck wrapped with a belt which allowed him to be dragged; his head beaten with a pistol and slammed against a wall; his anus probed; his body urinated upon. Yet this “interrogation” was different than the others. It was conducted not by soldiers but average American citizens, serving as contractors with major American corporations, CACI and Titan.

In discussions about the corporate beneficiaries of the War in Iraq, prominent companies like Halliburton are discussed often. What remains under-reported and under-appreciated is the fact that this war has afforded a vast collection of corporations to reap the benefits of lucrative government contracts. A number of such companies are involved in supervising, maintaining, and providing support for the numerous prisons in Iraq in the areas of interrogation, interpretation, and translation.

In 2004, a major Philadelphia law firm, the Center For Constitutional Rights, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago School of Law, and a handful of volunteers a group of lawyers in the United States brought a civil suit on behalf of Mr. Saleh and the hundreds of others Iraqi prisoners abused and tortured by American contractors working for CACI and Titan. The thirty one count complaint accused CACI and Titan of a whole host of common law torts (such as assault and battery), as well as violations of international human rights, and a RICO (Racketeer Influenced & Corrupt Organizations ACT) conspiracy. The essential theory of the case was that CACI and Titan had a financial motive to increase the amount of interrogation they conducted. The longer the “interrogations” went the more they got paid. By 2004, Titan was earning 96% of its revenue from government contracts.

The 67 page complaint contains detailed descriptions of the torture suffered by some of the other named plaintiffs. One Haj Ali was hung from a ceiling while made and shocked with electric pulses. Umer Abdul Mutalib was dragged until he went unconscious. Jasim al-Nidawi’s private parts were attacked by dogs. Other detainees were stripped naked and put in a room with a naked female detainee who had a mesh bag on her face and was screaming. The complaint also alleges that one of the private contractors raped a fourteen year old girl, and provides evidence that there may have been a rape room set up in the prison. It is important to recognize that all of these events were carried out by employees of American companies who were not part of the military. Significant amount of the information upon which the complaint was based came from the military’s own Fay and Taguba reports. Without those reports it is unlikely that the world would have known about the abuses committed by American private contractors.

At the current time the litigation is in the “discovery” stages in Federal Court in the District of Columbia . There are two major hurdles for the lawyers representing the torture victims. First is that Iraqi plaintiffs are seeking redress not in Iraqi court but in an American venue and therefore the American courts do not have jurisdiction over the matter. Second is that defendants were acting under the authority of the American government and therefore can set forth the argument that governmental immunity from civil damages should be extended to them.

As to the first, American law holds an interesting position. Under a statute enacted in the 1790’s, called the Alien Tort Claims Act, claims for civil damages by foreign citizens against American entities are permitted. The statute was actually dormant until 1980 when it was revived in the human rights context. Since then, courts around the country ­ with both Republican and Democratic appointed judges ­ have recognized that citizens of another country may bring certain claims for damages in American courts. In the most recent instance before the Supreme Court, in a case involving a Mexican citizen who was abducted from Mexico by the DEA, the Supreme Court held that under ATCA American courts did have jurisdiction over the matter. However, the court went on to add that there were only a select list of injuries for which the ATCA could be used and kidnapping was not one of them. The Court’s standard for determining which kind of injury is covered by ATCA is to look at international law from the 1790’s. If an act today violates the laws of the nations from the 1790’s, then, presumably, there may be a claim under ATCA. It seems fairly clear that in the 1790’s while kidnapping might not have been, torture was against the laws of nations. Evidence for this comes from the various treaties between the Western nations regarding prisoner exchanges, as well as a case in the British courts where executives from the British East India Company were found civilly liable for torts committed in India upon Indian citizens.

The human rights lawyers in this case will have far greater difficulty with removing the “national security” cloak from the case. A quick look at the recent arguments suggests that at every turn Plaintiffs are forced to engage in detailed requests to view the smallest of documents. Such delay tactics only assist CACI and Titan as they take the case out of the public consciousness and deplete the already meager resources that Plaintiffs command.

Whatever the result of the litigation, it will have revealed for posterity the blatant relationship between American corporations and actual torture.

ALI ETERAZ is an essayist. His works have appeared on Killing the Buddha, Identity Theory and Parabola. His eponymous blog can be found at

There he will publish interviews with attorneys and volunteers involved in this litigation as well as periodic updates.